Between a third and half of all Americans have insomnia and complain of poor sleep. Perhaps you’re one of them. If so, you may be considering taking a sleeping pill.
A sleeping pill may be effective at ending your sleep problems short-term. But it’s important to make sure you understand everything you need to know about sleeping pills. That includes knowing about sleeping pill side effects. When you do, you can avoid misusing these sedatives.
What Are Sleeping Pills?
Most sleeping pills are classified as “sedative hypnotics.” That’s a specific class of drugs used to induce and/or maintain sleep. Sedative hypnotics include benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and various hypnotics.
Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Librium are anti-anxiety medications. They also increase drowsiness and help people sleep. Halcion is an older benzodiazepine sedative-hypnotic medicine that has largely been replaced by newer medicines. While these drugs may be useful short-term, all benzodiazepines are potentially addictive and can cause problems with memory and attention. They are usually not recommended for long-term treatment of sleeping problems.
Barbiturates, another drug in this sedative-hypnotic class, depress the central nervous system and can cause sedation. Short- or long-acting barbiturates are prescribed as sedatives or sleeping pills. But more commonly, these hypnotic drugs are limited to use as anesthesia.They can be fatal in overdose.
Newer medications help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. Some of these sleep-inducing drugs, which bind to the same receptors in the brain as do benzodiazepines, include Lunesta, Sonata, and Ambien. They are somewhat less likely than benzodiazepines to be habit-forming, but over time can still sometimes cause physical dependence. They can work quickly to increase drowsiness and sleep. Another sleep aid, called Rozerem, acts differently from other sleep medicines by affecting a brain hormone called melatonin, and is not habit-forming. Belsomra is another unique sleep aid that affects a brain chemical called orexin, and is not addictive or habit-forming. Another sleep medicine that is not habit-forming, Silenor, is a low-dose form of the tricyclic antidepressant doxepin.
What Are the Side Effects of Sleeping Pills?
Sleeping pills have side effects like most medications. You won’t know, though, whether you will experience side effects with a particular sleeping pill until you try it.
Your doctor may be able to alert you to the possibility of side effects if you have asthma or other health conditions. Sleeping pills can interfere with normal breathing and can be dangerous in people who have certain chronic lung problems such as asthma , emphysema, or forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Common side effects of prescription sleeping pills such as Lunesta, Sonata, Ambien, Rozerem, and Halcion may include:
- Burning or tingling in the hands, arms, feet, or legs
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty keeping balance
- Daytime drowsiness
- Dry mouth or throat
- Impairment the next day
- Mental slowing or problems with attention or memory
- Stomach pain or tenderness
- Uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
- Unusual dreams
It’s important to be aware of possible sleeping pill side effects so you can stop the drug and call your doctor immediately to avoid a more serious health problem.
Are There More Complex Sleeping Pill Side Effects?
Some sleeping pills have potentially harmful side effects, including parasomnias. Parasomnias are movements, behaviors and actions over which you have no control, like sleepwalking. During a parasomnia, you are asleep and unaware of what is happening.
Parasomnias with sleeping pills are complex sleep behaviors and may include sleep eating, making phone calls, or having sex while in a sleep state. Sleep driving, which is driving while not fully awake, is another serious sleeping pill side effect. Though rare, parasomnias are difficult to detect once the medication takes effect.
Product labels for sedative-hypnotic medicines include language about the potential risks of taking a sleeping pill. Because complex sleep behaviors are more likely to occur if you increase the dosage of a sleeping pill, take only what your doctor prescribes — no more.
Can I Be Allergic to Sleeping Pills?
Yes — people can have an allergic reaction to any medicine, which could be related to either the active ingredient of the medicine itself or to any of its inactive ingredients (such as dyes, binders or coatings). People who have an allergic reaction to a specific sleeping pill should avoid it. It’s important to talk to your doctor at the first sign of these serious side effects, including:
- Blurred vision or any other problems with your sight
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Feeling that the throat is closing
- Pounding heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the eyes, face, lips, tongue, or throat
In addition, a serious — even deadly — side effect of any medicine someone is allergic to is anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is an acute allergic reaction. Another possible effect is angioedema, which is severe facial swelling. Again, discuss these possibilities with your doctor if you are at risk of allergic reactions.
When Do I Take a Sleeping Pill?
It’s usually recommended that you take the sleeping pill right before your desired bedtime. Read your doctor’s instructions on the sleeping pill prescription label. The instructions have specific information regarding your medication. In addition, always allow ample time to sleep before you take a sleeping pill.
Is It Dangerous to Combine Sleeping Pills and Alcohol?
Yes. Mixing alcohol and sleeping pills can have additive sedating effects from both drugs, and the combination can cause someone to stop breathing, which could cause death. Sleeping pill labels warn against using alcohol while taking the drug.
Also, you should not eat grapefruit or drink grapefruit juice while taking some sleeping pills. Grapefruit increases the amount of the drug absorbed into your bloodstream and how long it stays in the body. That can cause over-sedation.
Can I Become Dependent on Sleeping Pills?
For short-term insomnia, your doctor may prescribe sleeping pills for several weeks. Yet after regular use for a longer period, some sleeping pills such as benzodiazepines or benzodiazepine agonists such as zolpidem or eszopiclone may stop working as you build a tolerance to the medication. (However, tolerance has not been shown with non-habit-forming sleeping pills like Belsomra, Rozerem or Silenor.) You may also become psychologically dependent on the medicine. Then the idea of going to sleep without it will make you anxious.
Without the sleeping pill, you might find it difficult to sleep. If that happens, it could be a sign of a physical or emotional dependence or both. Some studies show that long-term use of sleeping pills actually interferes with sleep. The best way to avoid developing a physical or emotional dependence on sleeping pills is to follow your doctor’s instructions and stop taking the drug when recommended.